Working with nature towards integrated approaches to disaster risk reduction

Submitted by Michael Rastall | published 14th Mar 2014 | last updated 13th May 2019


Introduction

All around the world, people are increasingly exposed to disaster risk from natural hazards such as droughts, storms and floods. As disasters increase in frequency and intensity, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that traditional approaches to disaster risk reduction (DRR) are often insufficient to make a lasting difference. Disaster response and relief, and community development and preparedness remain key pillars of DRR, but practitioners increasingly recognise the need to also address the root causes of risk and vulnerability. Ecosystem degradation is often one such root cause. Deforestation, overexploitation of water resources, draining of wetlands and other practices that degrade ecosystems often stem from flawed spatial planning or inappropriate water management policies. As a result, ecosystem services - the benefits people derive from ecosystems, such as water purification, pest and disease control, as well as the provision of food and energy - are undermined. Addressing the often complex underlying causes of risk requires integration of best practices from DRR, climate change adaptation and ecosystem-based approaches to land and resource management. This must be done at various levels, from the community to the landscape level, and across the risk reduction cycle, from immediate disaster relief to longer-term mitigation and prevention measures.

Floods have great destructive power, often forcing people to flee their homes, as well as costing lives and livelihoods. Floods are therefore generally perceived as hazardous events that must be controlled at all costs. The regular rise and fall of river levels, however, sustains a wealth of economically valuable goods and services. Floods supply nutrients to riparian agricultural land, boosting crop yields, and play a crucial role in fisheries. Restoring forests and wetlands may increase regulation of water flows and thereby prevent beneficial floods from turning into hazards. This will boost the resilience of river systems to climate change.

An ecosystem-based approach to flood risk reduction recognises the value of natural flows and floods and ensures that ecosystem management and restoration measures are employed alongside human-engineered risk reduction interventions. Integrating these landscape approaches with conventional early-warning, preparedness and response measures increases community resilience.

Factual evidence

• Naturally flooded fields in the Mekong yield twice as much rice as irrigated fields.

• Worldwide 4 to 40 times as much fish is harvested from dynamic river-floodplain systems than from static reservoirs.

• Some European countries are removing dykes and restoring floodplains to restore water retention and reduce flood risk. The Dutch government has invested no less than €2.3 billion in river restoration measures.

• Models indicate that downstream water losses due to planned water infrastructure development upstream multiply risk, causing famine for 1 million inhabitants in the Inner Niger Delta in Mali every 2-3 years.

An ecosystem approach to DRR in five steps:

1. Assess risks and vulnerabilities, including the (environmental) root causes of risk.

Acknowledge the positive or negative impacts on the provision of ecosystem services related to the different scenarios

2. Identify risk reduction scenarios and related costs and benefits

Understand how many areas within the wider landscape are spatially connected (upstream and downstream linkages etc.) and how interventions in one area my have (positive or negative) implications for an area elsewhere, sometimes hundreds of kilometres away.

3 .Ensure that risk reduction measures are planned at multiple spatial scales- locally at the community level but also across wider areas (river basins, landscapes). 

i) Work with engineers and land-use planners to ensure integration of wetlands management and restoration in large-scale infrastructural/development approaches for DRR. 

ii) Work with development organisations and local communities to ensure integration of wetlands management and restoration in small-scale community-based risk reduction initiatives, linking environmental, humanitarian and development approaches.

4. Design and implement ecosystem-inclusive risk reduction measures in partnership with multiple sectors. 

5. Address the root causes of risk by ensuring sound land use and natural resource use policies, ensuring that ecosystem services are sustained. 

This may require DRR professionals to move beyond their comfort zone and also address sensitive issues such as logging, mining and land conversion.